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In IT companies, English is usually the official communication medium as most of the companies deal with foreign customers. We have so many countries where English is second, or even third language and in many workplaces the spoken language will be a regional language and email/online communications will be in English.

Problems I felt from team are:

  1. Typos (manageable up to an extend in email clients with spell checkers)
  2. Bad grammar - leads to miscommunication including misunderstanding as 'rude mail'
  3. People hesitate to talk to customers (shy, fear, no confidence)
  4. Incorrect pronunciation leads to miscommunication which impacts customer confidence
  5. Time waste in online meetings
  6. Problems for the team in understanding customer requirements
  7. Team not successful in convincing clients when requirement creeps
  8. Soft skills trainings are not usually conducted in small companies
  9. Team do not give importance to communication skills and they believe it is not a part of their job

How to transform the team to good communicators? What a PM can do other than ask them to study yourselves? A slow poison is what I expect so that the team communication improvement process will not affect project priorities.

UPDATE: Thank you for the answers. Here the communication issues are not just with customer interactions. The teams can be intercultural and/or can contain remote members. So as I said, I am not expecting a fast recovery solution but a medicine to heal the root cause.

  • 1
    Honestly speaking I dont mind some mistakes in communication as long as it does not alter the meaning too much. As foreigners everybody expects you to make some mistakes in English language. As customer I would be more interested in the Idea you are presenting and honesty in the communication. Grammatical mistakes or spelling mistakes can be corrected using spell/grammer checking softwares. But spoken communication needs training. – ViSu Nov 19 '13 at 7:37
  • Not a dupe, but worth reading: Communicating requirements to offshore teams – Tiago Cardoso Nov 21 '13 at 7:19
  • related: pm.stackexchange.com/questions/10105/… – jmort253 Dec 19 '13 at 4:18
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From my experience, I would say the problem here is "leadership". I am just taking couple of points from your statement.

  • Team not successful in convincing clients when requirement creeps
  • Team do not give importance to communication skills and they believe it is not a part of their job

These are things that should be driven by a strong leader. The leader himself should be inspiring and people should "wish" that they could be like him/her. So it helps to start with you.

If the requirement creeps and the team is not able to explain there should be a technical lead or a project manager who should help their views translate to the clients. If the team is thinking they are not giving importance to communication you must tell them and mark them as their goal.

Spell checkers help a little bit, but not always. For instance: One of my colleague wrote to my client this way.

  1. "Dear xxx, I would like to have a call to sink (sync) up (on) the project. So if you cum (come online for the call) it will be great".
  2. QA writes: "I have a sanitary (Sanity) test that I have to run..."

Bottom line: Guide, mentor, inspire your team. If you are the lead or manager, mark these as their goals, let them know that it affects their salary, provide links and ask them 1x1 how they are progressing, drive them relentlessly. You will see change!

2

Few things like this you can try:

  1. Arrange an English course training to team to improve to next level. Influence management to get this training conducted and show your plan of improvement etc..
  2. Use translators before sending emails, i.e they can type first in English, team can also type in their first language and use translators and get the English version and check themselves. Correct and self learn.
  3. Reviews by someone who knows English much better before sending to client at least very important emails.
  4. Encourage and introduce some rewards for the team to get better at English
  5. Team can learn by watching Youtube videos on English Speaking course. As a team every week few hours can be spent if #1 is not possibile for your organization.
2

I will assume in my answer that you are primarily concerned with communications between the Vendor (you) and a foreign Customer and not your internal communications.

In the short term you can identify the team members that can best communicate with your customers. This is both in terms of English language skills and also whatever technical skills they need to understand the customer's perspective. These team members can act as the primary points of contact with the customer, and will advocate for the customer's perspective during your internal conversations. Ideally whoever fills this role will have some level of authority (e.g. Project Manager, Product Manager, whatever) within your organization, this will better ensure that the customer's perspective has a strong and active voice.

Longer term you could promote learning English and use technology as suggested by Sreedhar. This is fine as far as it goes, but realize that a huge proportion of native English speakers are poor communicators. In other words, language skills are only part of the question. Your team should also work on improving their communication skills in general, and in particular how to handle cross-cultural communications. Don't undervalue this last piece, what a European or Asian customer may expect in terms of your company's performance against schedule/quality/etc will often be very different from a similar customer based in USA.

  • Not just customer interactions. Team can be intercultural or can contain remote members. – NinethSense Nov 21 '13 at 17:11
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Theory vs. Practice in Agile Communications

Agile practices generally favor direct interpersonal interactions. However, the problem you're describing is one where direct interactions with a client, customer, or other team may be counter-productive.

If that's the case, what you're really trying to do is manage the customer interface. There are a few ways to do this that immediately spring to mind:

  • Hire someone with cross-cultural experience to manage project communications.
  • Hire someone with interpreter-level language skills to manage communications. (Note: this may or may not be the same person as above.)
  • Funnel all critical or high-impact customer communications through the designated communications channels.
  • Set customer expectations about communications channels and skills levels.
  • Have a defined process to periodically review the quality of communications with the customer.
  • Have an escalation process for the customer, so that communications problems can be resolved quickly and effectively for all parties.

Culture and language can certainly be barriers, but setting everyone's expectations properly throughout the lifetime of the project may prevent those barriers from turning into project failures. In the long run, hiring a communications person and setting everyone's expectations is probably less expensive and more realistic than expecting everyone involved in a project (on both sides of a language/cultural barrier) to become a foreign-communications expert.

  • Not just customer interactions. Team can be intercultural or can contain remote members. – NinethSense Nov 21 '13 at 15:45
0

In my experience, most English-speaking (America) people are poor writers. Expecting those where English is not their first language to write better is futile.

When you cross language boundaries like this, you need interpreters, those that can interpret the original language into writing that is in English. And the cost of those experts should be part of the cost build up in the contract.

Spending project dollars to train your existing people is inappropriate. No customer would want to, nor should they, fund language classes, and the results will be dismal anyway.

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